The Power of Culture

Mr Jim Leach, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the US, spoke about Singapore’s importance in the dialogue between east and west and how culture is vital to policy considerations.

Culture is vital to policy considerations in areas such as national security, foreign policy and economic development, says Mr Leach.

“Singapore is where Confucius meets and sometimes tussles with Jefferson on every street corner, while Buddha watches from the balcony,” according to Mr Jim Leach, keynote speaker at the Singapore International Foundation’s ninth Ideas for a Better World Forum held on 12 September 2012.

Mr Leach, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the US, spoke about Singapore’s importance in the dialogue between east and west, and why it holds such a critical role in championing cultural diplomacy for the world.

As a “rock of corruption-free stability, entrepreneurial innovation and a world of unprecedented change” with a people who are “best capable to adjust and lead”, Singapore’s importance as a facilitator of dialogue and understanding between nations and cultures is irreplaceable.

At the forum, entitled “Cultural Outreach and Citizen Diplomacy for a Common Future”, Mr Leach shared his view that culture, or an emphasis on “cultural power”, is vital to policy considerations in areas such as national security, foreign policy and economic development.

The forum was attended by an engaged audience of almost 125 individuals from 20 different nationalities.

Drawing on his extensive experience in the humanities, from disciplines such as history, literature and philosophy, Mr Leach showed how they can provide us with the historical framework and perspectives to foster cultural outreach.

He urged considerations relating to history and culture to be part and parcel of decision-making when addressing questions on how to prevent conflict and build sustainable relationships between countries. Much as they nourish our soul and widen our perspectives, he stressed, the humanities are also critical in equipping us with the ability to communicate our own culture and understanding others in order to participate in global markets.

At the same time, Mr Leach, whose career spanned three decades in the US congress, also drove home the importance of citizen diplomacy. In this space, he said, unelected individuals of goodwill - such as artists, scientists, businessmen or scholars - are as integral as public officials are to the process of defining the tone of relations between states.

After his keynote speech, Mr Leach engaged in a lively forum moderated by SIF Governor Ms Jennifer Lewis. Fellow panelists included Director of the Singapore Art Museum, Mr Tan Boon Hui, Ambassador-at-Large Professor Chan Heng Chee, and Chairman of the School Of the Arts, Mr Lee Tzu Yang. Among the issues discussed were the questions of how culture could be translated through social media and the value of education in creating a culturally-skilled new generation. The panel also fielded a spectrum of questions from the audience, such as how to navigate diverse cultural identities in a globalised world, and ways in which every citizen can play an active role in diplomacy.

Mr Leach described the phrase “soft power” as a “misnomer”. Although Ambassador Chan disagreed, claiming that the only true ‘hard’ power is military power, he insisted that nothing is more powerful than culture, implying that granting cultural considerations ancillary status in geo-political decision-making is highly mistaken and risky.

The panel rounded off the discussion by applauding the contents of Mr Leach’s key note speech in championing the study of the humanities. As an advocate of the study of history and literature, Amb Chan spoke to Mr Leach directly, “This is what language can do. You have expressed your thoughts in such beautiful language and this is what makes the strongest case for the study of the humanities. History isn’t taught in the way it ought to be, when in fact, history gives one a perspective. It is only by knowing our past, that you know where you stand.”

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